Backups lead Georgia Tech in win over Clemson

Georgia Tech guard Deivon Smith (No. 5) takes a jump shot against Clemson in a 69-64 win for the Yellow Jackets Feb. 5, 2022 at McCamish Pavilion. (Anthony McClellan/Georgia Tech Athletics)

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Georgia Tech guard Deivon Smith (No. 5) takes a jump shot against Clemson in a 69-64 win for the Yellow Jackets Feb. 5, 2022 at McCamish Pavilion. (Anthony McClellan/Georgia Tech Athletics)

In dire need of a win, Georgia Tech trod an unusual path to victory Saturday afternoon. Despite linchpins Michael Devoe and Jordan Usher not playing at their peak, the Yellow Jackets scored a 69-64 win over Clemson at McCamish Pavilion.

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Guard Deivon Smith came off the bench to tie his season high with 16 points to go with eight rebounds and six assists (all team highs) against five turnovers (also a team high) in 26 minutes of play.

“You can see Deivon continuing to get better,” coach Josh Pastner said.

Before Saturday, the Jackets had lost four of their past five ACC games and seven of their past nine against Division I competition. Saturday’s win was, perhaps, an indication of the uptick that Pastner has assured is coming.

“We're getting better," Pastner said. “Yes, it's taken longer than I've wanted, but we mirror Georgia Tech. Nothing happens overnight when you're at Georgia Tech."

Tech (10-12, 3-8 ACC) won despite three points from Devoe, who struggled on 1-for-7 shooting (1-for-5 from 3-point range) to finish well below his season average of 19.4 points per game. Usher scored 14, but also committed four turnovers. Still, both found ways to chip in, Devoe with five assists and Usher with three steals and a timely 3-pointer that helped thwart the Tigers after they had closed the lead to six, at 59-53, with 4:44 to play after having trailed by as many as 15 earlier in the second half.

“I thought the second half, the way he played – the right way – and the way he moved the ball, I was so proud of him,” Pastner said of Devoe. “I know his shot wasn’t falling, had some good looks, but five assists, he got other guys great looks.”

Clemson (12-10, 4-7) lost for the fifth time in its past seven games. The Tigers entered the game ranked second in the ACC in 3-point field-goal percentage (38.7%) but shot 6-for-24 (25%). Clemson also turned the ball over 18 times, 10 of them on steals, as the Jackets’ 1-3-1 defense continued its recent activity.

“Josh and his guys, they outplayed us,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said. “We struggled in the first half against the zone, a lot of poor decisions in passing.”

Early on, Pastner turned to a backup who had not seen much time during the team’s recent slide, forward Jordan Meka. After not playing in the previous five ACC games – he was unavailable for the Jackets’ loss at Virginia Tech on Wednesday – as Pastner gave more time to a smaller lineup and relied mostly on center Rodney Howard, Meka came in for Howard barely three minutes into the game. Quick and active on defense, Meka contributed three steals and killed two more Clemson possessions with rebounds as the Jackets gained control of the game with a 24-2 run to take a 26-10 lead with 6:32 left in the half.

“I thought Jordan Meka gave us great minutes,” Pastner said.

Despite offering little on offense, Meka’s play was so impactful that Pastner sent him out to start the second half, departing from his default of going with the original starting five. Meka played a career-high 27 minutes, finishing with only two points, but securing five rebounds and three steals.

“He got a bunch of tip-outs,” Usher said of Meka, referring to rebounds batted to a teammate. “He might not get the full rebound, but he’s tipping it out, and I think we got a couple 3′s out of there, and that’s major.”

Georgia Tech 69, Clemson 64

For one game, at least, he was a solution for Tech’s ongoing conundrum this season – the Jackets generally are better on defense with a post player in the game to defend opponents’ centers, rebound and protect the rim, but generally worse on offense, particularly with the limited offensive games of Meka and Howard.

Smith also was a critical boost for the Jackets off the bench. After Clemson scored the first eight points of the second half to cut Tech’s lead to 33-28, Pastner sent Smith into the game along with freshman guards Deebo Coleman and Miles Kelly.

Almost immediately, Smith ended a Clemson possession with a defensive rebound. On Tech’s next possession, he almost gave away the ball with his inbounds pass, but then won a loose ball and scored on a reverse. On the next possession, he set up Coleman for a 3-pointer and then went high to score on an and-one tip-in on the possession after that (he made the free throw) and found Coleman for another 3-pointer to finish an 11-2 run.

“I just wanted to be a spark,” Smith said. “Coming off the bench, just staying ready when my name is called, just playing hard at all times. I just want to win. That’s all. I just wanted to win.”

The surge created a 14-point gap that the Jackets were able to ride home to victory. Coleman and Kelly combined for 19 points off the bench, as well.

“We had a great team win,” Pastner said. “Great contributions from everybody.”